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Muslim leader: Iran’s death penalty for Christian pastor violates treaties, Koran

Editor’s Note: With its plans to execute Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, Iran’s Shi’ite Muslim government is violating not only international treaties, but the very teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, says an American Muslim leader, Harris Zafar of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.

As with Christianity, Islam has “denominations,” such as the Wahhabis, the Suffis and the Shi’ites, the largest being the Sunnis. Zafar is a spokesman for the Ahmadis, which emerged from the Sunnis in 1889, led by Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who said he fulfilled the prophecies concerning Jesus’ Second Coming, the return of the Muslim Mahdi, the return of the Hindus’ Krishna and the reincarnation of  Buddha. His followers today claim tens of millions of members in 190 countries with most in India and Africa.


by Harris Zafar
Special to Beliefnet

In Iran, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani faces the death penalty for the “crime” of leaving Islam as a teenager and converting to Christianity. A translated Iranian Supreme Court brief from 2010 states that 32-year-old Nadarkhani “is convicted of turning his back on Islam, the greatest religion, the prophesy of Mohammad at the age of 19.” While there is widespread public outcry of support for his specific case, some are speaking broadly about the punishment for apostasy. Many – Muslim and non-Muslim – mistakenly believe that Islam supports this barbaric practice.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Islam prescribes absolutely no punishment for apostasy. If one were to assume that Islam prescribes some sort of punishment for a person who chooses to leave Islam, that would invariably mean that Islam forces one to be a Muslim against their will. But chapter two of the Holy Qur’an emphatically denies this possibility, stating “there shall be no compulsion in religion.” This is an unambiguous declaration protecting freedom of conscience and choice.


Sadly, there are unfortunate souls within the Muslim world arguing that this verse only applies to non-Muslims, thereby meaning that only a non-Muslim cannot be compelled, whereas a Muslim can be compelled or coerced in matters of religion. This argument is patently absurd. Islam affords its followers freedom of conscience and religion, with no threat of coercion or compulsion in matters of faith. They are not answerable to any person or government in regards to their conscience.

The Quran is replete with this instruction that everyone has the fundamental freedom of religion. In Chapter 18, it says “This is the truth from your Lord; then let him who will, believe, and let him who will, disbelieve.” Why is this so difficult for these so-called Islamic “scholars” to understand? They spit in the face of the religion they claim to defend by not only violating these teachings but then falsely attributing their vile sense of justice to the tolerant faith of Islam. The allegation that Islam advocates the use of force to spread or maintain itself does not originate from a study of the sources of Islamic teachings. Rather, it originates from a study of the conduct of some so-called “Muslim” states.


In fact, we read more about this principle in Chapter 10 of the Holy Quran when God speaks to the Prophet Muhammad and instructs him to say to all people: “O mankind, the Truth has indeed come to you from your Lord. Then whoso follows the guidance, follows it only for the good of his own self, and whoso errs does so only to his own detriment. I am not appointed a keeper over you.” So if the Prophet himself is not appointed as a keeper to enforce faith over people, then who in the world do these governments think they are to appoint themselves as keepers over people? The only example of those killed were not because they left Islam but because they joined an opposing army at war with Muslims.

In addition to violating Islamic law, Iranian courts are also in violation of international law. In 1975, Iran ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 18 of which states: “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion of his choice.” The U.N. Human Rights Committee recognized in 1993 that Article 18 ensures the right to replace one’s current religion or belief with another and forbids coercion that would impair this right.


As a state party to the ICCPR, Iran is obligated to defend the right of individuals to practice the religion of their choice and to change religions if they so choose. Even the Iranian Constitution states in Article 23: “The investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.” Apostasy is not a crime under any of these codified laws.

Unfortunately, some jurists, including Ayatollah Khomeini (whose teachings hold a privileged position in contemporary Iranian courts), have ruled that the penalty for apostasy is death. But Islam, as well as international law (and even general human decency) dictate that Iran is committing injustice. I call upon the government of Iran to live up to the true principles of Islam and to let Mr. Nadarkhani go free and then to repent for making a mockery of not only their authority but also of Islam.


The author can be reached at


    Very well written piece Mr. Zafar. I hope people view Islam in this true light, and not the extremists excuse for Islam in Pakistan.

    If people could study this true Islam in action, then I am confident they would find that Islam is a beautiful faith.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Kim

    Strange that this Muslim leader doesn’t know about abrogation.

    The scholars explained that these two verses, and other similar verses, have to do with those from whom the jizyah may be taken, such as Jews, Christians and Magians (Zoroastrians). They are not to be forced, rather they are to be given the choice between becoming Muslim or paying the jizyah.

    Other scholars said that this applied in the beginning, but was subsequently abrogated by Allaah’s command to fight and wage jihad. So whoever refuses to enter Islam should be fought when the Muslims are able to fight, until they either enter Islam or pay the jizyah if they are among the people who may pay jizyah. The kuffaar should be compelled to enter Islam if they are not people from whom the jizyah may be taken, because that will lead to their happiness and salvation in this world and in the Hereafter. Obliging a person to adhere to the truth in which is guidance and happiness is better for him than falsehood. Just as a person may be forced to do the duty that he owes to other people even if that is by means of imprisonment or beating, so forcing the kaafirs to believe in Allaah alone and enter into the religion of Islam is more important and more essential, because this will lead to their happiness in this world and in the Hereafter. This applies unless they are People of the Book, i.e., Jews and Christians, or Magians, because Islam says that these three groups may be given the choice: they may enter Islam or they may pay the jizyah and feel themselves subdued.

    “Fight against those who (1) believe not in Allaah, (2) nor in the Last Day, (3) nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allaah and His Messenger (Muhammad), (4) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (i.e. Islam) among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” [al-Tawbah 9:29]

    “And fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief and polytheism, i.e. worshipping others besides Allaah), and the religion (worship) will all be for Allaah Alone [in the whole of the world]”[al-Anfaal 8:39]

    “Then when the Sacred Months (the 1st, 7th, 11th, and 12th months of the Islamic calendar) have passed, then kill the Mushrikoon (see V.2:105) wherever you find them, and capture them and besiege them, and lie in wait for them in each and every ambush. But if they repent [by rejecting Shirk (polytheism) and accept Islamic Monotheism] and perform As-Salaah (Iqaamat-as-Salaah), and give Zakaah, then leave their way free. Verily, Allaah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” [al-Tawbah 9:5]

    “Whoever changes his religion, execute him.” (Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 2794). What is meant by religion here is Islam (i.e., whoever changes from Islam to another religion).

    The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “It is not permissible to shed the blood of a Muslim who bears witness that there is no god except Allaah and that I am His Messenger, except in one of three cases: a soul for a soul (i.e., in the case of murder); a married person who commits adultery; and one who leaves his religion and splits form the jamaa’ah (main group of Muslims).” (Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 6878; Muslim, 1676)

  • Mike Ghouse

    Harris, I am so glad you wrote this.

    Indeed there is absolutely no punishment for apostasy, one is free to be a muslim and free to leave the religion. After all no one is to bear the burden of other, he alone is responsible for his belief.

    I hope and pray that the Muslim scholars get off their butts and speak up.

    Mike Ghouse
    World Muslim congress
    Dallas, Texas

  • Mike Ghouse


    Pat Roberston does not represent all Christian teachings, many a times he is a lone wolf. What Evangelist say about Bible is not shared by most Christians.

    The Abrogation theories are sheer non-sense, these men are telling that God goofed up when he said one thing, then comes back and said, Oh, I did not mean that.

    If they beleieve in God, they will find the full meaning and not take a short cut and abrogate what God himself has said.

    God does not make mistakes and God does not negate his own word.

    Mike Ghouse

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Samson

    These uniform views held by Kim and radical Islamists, hefty portions of Christians & Conservatives, al-Qaida and other extremist groups, have largely failed to capture the imagination of most Muslims throughout the world, and their twisted interpretations will continue to leave most Muslims uninspired to follow them. Yet somehow, the western branch of this false propagation, lacking knowledge of Arabic, lacking knowledge of fiqh, lacking knowledge of the science of hadith, or any of the rules of interpretation of Quran, feeling confident they’ve acquired “true knowledge” from their meager “studies” – i.e. heavily biased google searches – seriously entertain the notion that they can effectively argue their interpretation of “true Islam” with Muslims. Many backwards Muslims, who do know Arabic, etc., have tried and failed to promote these silly radical ideas amongst the Ummah, yet majority of Muslims today don’t follow them, nor did they follow them in the past. So let the biased preachers of hate, whether Christian, Muslim, or political, continue to preach their hate to their respective choirs, Muslims who adhere to peace and righteousness will continue to do so, despite what others may desire of them.


    @Kim – Abrogation is about as weak of a criticism of the Qur’an as you can get. Any of those verses are clearly understood – literally once read in context.

    The Qur’an is a book of laws. Any judge in any country at any time will scoff at the idea of trying to understand a law by reading only one aspect of it, and not reading it in its full context. Look up each of those verses at the below link and anyone will see how flawed the supposed theory of abrogation really is.

  • Mike Ghouse

    Indeed there is absolutely no punishment for apostasy in Quraan; one is free to become a Muslim and free to leave the faith. After all no one is to bear the burden of the other, he alone is responsible for his belief.

    A majority of Muslim scholars believe that there is no punishment for apostasy, but cannot their act together to issue a joint statement to put an end to this non-sense that keeps coming up every few years. In the last decade there have been a few known cases, one was Lina Joy in Malaysia and the other was Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan, both were dismissed due to international pressure. We need the same now for Youcef Nadarkhani.

    Let people have the freedom to choose what they want to believe, it is really none of any one’s business, indeed on the day of Judgment, God is clear about it – you alone are responsible for your deeds. Prophet Muhammad told his own daughter that she will not get a free pass to paradise because she is daughter of the prophet; she has to earn it through good deeds.

    In the comment section of the article some one brought up the abrogation theories and challenged the author. Indeed, in essence abrogation theorists state that God goofed up badly, he says one thing and then comes back and says, “Oh, I don’t mean that, here take this new and improved verse and ignore what I said before.” God does not make mistakes, what he says he means it. We have to go deeper and understand it rather than taking a short cut of abrogation.

    I hope and pray that the Muslim scholars and Imams speak up and stop the misinformed from abusing the religion. Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq has put together a site on the topic, please read it and if you are a Imam or a scholar, kindly sign it.

    And I hope to put a petition to gether, unless some one has done it already, in which case we urge Muslims and non-Muslims to sign the petition and urge the Iranian clerics to release Yocef Nadarkhani.

    Mike Ghouse
    Committed to building cohesive societies

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Arif Humayun

    Mr. Zafar has clearly elucidated the Qur’anic teachings that there is no compulsion in religion and that the Muslim scripture does not specify, nor authorize humans to define, any punishment for apostasy. The Iranian court ruling awarding capital punishment to Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani is not only contrary to the Qur’anic teachings; it is also repugnant towards human intellect. No doubt certain Muslim groups, under a defeatist mentality, have tried to proclaim apostasy as a capital crime. However, their efforts remained unsuccessful until the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the termination of the Muslim Caliphate. Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jama’at-e-Islami in the Indian subcontinent proclaimed apostasy as a capital crime in the 1930-40. Their combined proclamation, in the aftermath of the destruction of both the Ottoman and the Mughal Empires, gained traction because the Muslim world was under a defeatist mindset. The doctrine of apostasy as a capital crime is a very recent innovation.

    The bigger problem in its implementation is the definition of a Muslim and one who renounces Islam and thus becomes an apostate. This matter was examined in detail in Pakistan in 1954 by a high powered, independent judicial commission. They examined all leading “Muslim scholars” and were unable to arrive at a common definition of Islam. It is only after the term “Muslim” is first defined that one can determine as to whether or not someone has, actually, recanted Islam.

    After a deep investigation and very detailed cross-examination, the “Muslim scholars” were unable to even agree on a common definition. The judges, expressing their frustration at the lack of consensus in defining a Muslims, concluded: “Keeping in view the several definitions given by the ulama [scholars], need we make any comment except that no two learned divines are agreed on this fundamental. If we attempt our own definition as each learned divines has done and that definition differs from that given by all others, we unanimously go out of the fold of Islam. And if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulama, we remain Muslims to the view of that alim [scholar] but kafirs [disbeliever] according to the definition of everyone else.” This report is a must read for anyone interested in this debate.

    Ironically, the Iranians belong to the minority Shia sect of Islam. Ironically they have themselves been declared heretics and apostates by the majority Sunni Muslims. With this state of affairs, how can the Iranian judges define if Pastor Nadarkhani recanted Islam and which Islam? Islamists who proclaim that Islam was spread by force must also understand that religion is a personal matter and no amount of force can make a person Muslim; those who accept Islam under force will only be hypocrites.

  • Jari

    Very well written article. Agree There is no punishment of apostasy in Islam. How can God give up his own right of judgment. God is the judge. He declares right or wrong. He has shown different pathways to Himself in different times of history of man, then how can He forbids people not to take that path. Following any prophet of Allah can lead one to true God, because all of them came to unite humans with God. Please see the link above for details. Agree with Mike Gouse. Quran is a book that requires lot of wisdom.

  • Quran

    it is really a good piece of writing i ever read and i agree with Runmad as Islam is the best ever religion in any term because we have the best guidance book with us that gives each and every solution to the problems.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment LAtif Ahmed

    Thank you Mr. Zafar for clarifying Islam’s position on this matter. It is great disservice to Islam that these people who are carrying out these heinous acts for their personal political gains are doing in the name of Islam. How much clearer can Islamic teachings be on this subject when Holy Quran states “Those who believe, then disbelieve, then again believe, then disbelieve, and then increase in disbelief, Allah will never forgive them nor will He guide them to the way” (Chapter 4 : Verse 138.) Matters of faith are between God and His creation. Other human, not even Holy prophet was give authority to punish those who go apostate. Government of Iran is absolutely wrong in this matter and Mr. Youcef Nadarkhani is free to practice an religion according to Islamic teachings.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Ronald

    Great article, Mr. Zafar.

    In response to “Kim” and the ‘abrogation’ argument – that somehow all the “peaceful verses” are now somehow over-ridden by ‘war verses’ and such. She then goes on to cherry-pick a bunch of verses out of context to “prove” that Islam is violent. Colossal fail.

    As Mr. Zafar points out, these interpretations are absurd. They go against the life and example of the Prophet Muhammad himself, for one. Further, they go against the context of the Quran itself.

    If you look at the “abrogation” verse, it comes after dozens and dozens of verses – actually an entire chapter – summarizing the way that the Christians and Jews had gone astray. What is being referred to as abrogated is the previous corrupted revelation and dispensation and books that had come before. They were being replaced by the universal and permanent teaching of the Quran – exactly as is prophesied in the Bible itself.

    To take this verse as ‘abrogating peaceful verses’ is ridiculous and fanatical to the extreme. I find it positively telling that the only ones who interpret it like this are corrupt mullahs bent on justifying their cruelty and anti-Islam westerners with an axe to grind against Islam.

    In many ways, they are one in the same.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Usman

    Very nicely explained in a simple and straight manner Harris Bhai. I don’t understand why the so-called muslim scholars who pose to be the contractors of Islam don’t understand this simple and clear-cut language of Islam. Thank you for writing this article.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Saleem Hayat

    Islam is a religion of peace, but unfortunately the religion always become victim to the extremist. This is one more example where the core of Islamic teaching,teachings in holy Quran, the teachings and practice of holy prophet are tarnished by the wrong interpretations by the fanatics. May Allah give them wisdom to understand HIS teachings.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Melchizedek

    Islam a religion of peace? Joke.
    Any course in secondary school, high@university on religion or philosophy, especially The hermeneutics of ‘holy text” will in one generation remove “revealed religions” from students.
    There is only one true philosophy: semantic realism
    and one true religion: the one that explains the problem of cross/suffering=Christianity.Your “Pope”(popes) will never allow for studying “holy”text! It undermines their office authority
    Q:Why in Quran the Christian God is presented from the sect of Collorydians: “Trinity”=Allah+Jesus+Mary? Do you have a brain able to explain it? Allah through Mahomet repeats a lie of Collorydians; there are plenty other “truths” in Quran.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment WhatDidIJustRead?

    @ Melchizedek: Say whaaaa?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Dorina Lisson

    Thank you Harris Zafar for this excellent article.

    Every major religion in the world opposes the use of the death penalty. The death penalty is a government program … it is based on culture, not in religious teachings.

    The Quran preaches forgivenes­s over vengeance – that those who forgive, pardon and maintain righteousn­ess will be rewarded by God.

    The Quran clearly states that it is better for victims of crime to forgive the offenders, than to have the offenders legally killed. This rule applies to every crime including murder. (Quran 42:40)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Gulzar Ahmed

    Well said Zafar.

    There has been a big debate on the subject of apostasy in Islam and unfortulately some Ulema profess it on account of some Ahadith. Whereas Ahadith are important in Islam but Quran always supercedes them. Ther is no reference in Quran allowing capital punishment for apostates. The following verse of Quran clearly states no punishment for an apostate:

    [5:54] O you who believe, if you revert from your religion, then GOD will substitute in your place people whom He loves and who love Him. They will be kind with the believers, strong with the disbelievers, and will strive in the cause of GOD without fear of any blame. Such is GOD’s blessing; He bestows it upon whomever He wills. GOD is Bounteous, Omniscient.

    Verse 2:256 clearly states there is no compulsion in religion. It does not say “But in the case of Muslims …. “. It applies to everyone. There no compulsion on anyone, irrespective of their faith, including Islam.

    The judgement is in the hands of God, not scholars. No one has the right to decide who is Muslim and who is not, who is going to be saved and who is to be condemned; that decision is not ours.

    I also urge Iranian government to let Mr. Nadarkhani go free. It is the right thing to do.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Steve

    As a Jew, I have read the Holy Koran, all 114 chapters of it, in 3 different dialects, just to make sure i understood how my Muslim brothers understand their faith.
    Muslims who do not know their own faith make a mockery of it.
    The Iranian leaders who even contemplate such an atrocity as an execution of a Christian convert need to confer with the Koran, Chapter 2, The Cow, Al Baquara, Verse 62.
    Those who understand the words I am referring to, good for you, but those who don’t should look it up- read it- and cherish it; You need to understand how your brothers think so you can understand how they feel- and recognize nonsense when you hear it- and not to blindly follow the path of actions that disgraces Allah.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mickey

    What a disgrace for the Muslim comunity. The leaders are leaving a dismal testimoney of their relegion. The man has not commited a crime, his beleif system also uplifts humanity and teaches love. Their actions only inspire hatred of their intoleranc of others. Here in South Africa the Muslim comunity is left alone to practice their relegion with freedom without interference. Should this man be executed it will only divide people more.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Lola from SC

    The voice of CAIR, or any other prominent American Muslim organization, is noticeably absent among those pleading for mercy for Pastor Nadarkhani. Hello, CAIR, anybody there? Now is your chance to demonstrate whether Islam is the Religion of Peace or the Religion of Pieces, and so far the silence Muslim organizations and leaders veritably screams that it is the latter. Anyway, thank you, Mr. Zafar, for being the rare voice of peace within the Religion of Pieces. Has this overwhelming Muslim silence in the face of atrocity taught you anything yet?

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